There’s been a lot of discussion around what happened in the 39th Senate District and what the real cause of Jay O’Brien’s defeat was. One popular theory is that having Jay O”Brien forced to campaign alongside the relatively unpopular Faisal Gill was the proximate cause of his defeat, but there’s little evidence in the election results that this might be the case. Although it may be a popular theory, unless future campaign strategies in this District are based on reality, rather than on what might be a convenient or more palatable excuse, the chances of retaking this seat at the next opportunity are slim.
The 39th Senate District has nine precincts in Prince William County, and all but one overlap with the 51st District with the exception of Buckhall precinct, which is in the 13th House District represented by Bob Marshall. In those eight precincts, Corey Stewart came out with 4,241 (57.33%) votes, Faisal Gill got 3,691 (50.08%) votes, and Jay O’Brien got 4,034 (54.29%). In three of these precincts, O’Brien got more votes than Corey Stewart, and in the Buckhall precinct outside of the 51st, O’Brien got 12 votes more than Stewart. In none of these precincts did Faisal Gill out-poll Corey Stewart.
If this one precinct demonstrates what results should have been absent the “Faisal Gill Effect”, which is an awfully thin basis to make a case, Faisal Gill may have cost Jay O’Brien 1,356 votes, had he tracked above Corey Stewart in the eight precincts he shares with the 51st District as he did in the one precinct he has in the 13th District. Instead of contributing 637 net votes to offset what happens in Fairfax County, Jay would have netted 1,993 votes, assuming a worst-case of all additional votes for Jay O’Brien would have been additional votes at the polls rather than votes for Barker that switched to O’Brien. Barker won the 39th District by only 751 votes, so these votes would have changed the outcome of the election.
So far, if you assume that the differential at Buckhall between Corey Stewart votes and Jay O’Brien votes would have been the differential in the other eight precincts, the case for the “Faisal Gill Effect” torpedoing Jay O’Brien’s race looks somewhat convincing. So let’s take a look at what happened in the last comparable race, when Jay O’Brien faced off against Greg Galligan in 2003.
In that election, Jay O’Brien netted 2,169 votes from Prince William County while crushing Galligan 58%-42%. In that election, O’Brien won not only in Prince William, but in Fairfax County as well. Two precincts gave better margins for O’Brien than Buckhall, and only two tracked significantly lower. Buckhall doesn’t seem to be an anomaly in the 51st District, but somewhere in the top third for Republican candidates, so that net margin probably should be discounted by about a third. That nets out to 1,315 votes, with 1,388 needed from Prince William in order to have changed the outcome.
Where this direct comparison with the 2003 elections starts to break down, as they usually do, is in the turnout numbers. The turnout in the 39th District in Prince William County in 2003 was 25.83%, and jumped to a fairly respectable 35.09% in 2007. Corey Stewart’s performance at 57.33% in these eight precincts is a couple of percentage points higher than his county-wide average, but lower than the somewhat comparable Hill-Stoffregen race if you adjust the results for each precinct down by the same percentage as Hill’s margin in 2003 compared to Stewart’s margin in 2007. Turnout in 2007 would seem to have been marginally less favorable to Republicans than the turnout in 2003. Some of what we’re seeing here is a slightly unfavorable effect due to turnout, which cuts this “Faisal Gill Effect” down again.
In the end, a “Faisal Gill Effect” may have been present, but it probably was too small to make difference in the 39th District. What is pretty easy to determine is that in 2003 Jay O’Brien got much better results out of Fairfax County in 2003 than he did in 2007. A significant decrease in the effectiveness of the FCRC, improved organization by Fairfax Democrats, and a stronger opponent in 2007 made it a much tougher race for Jay O’Brien this year than in his last election. It’s a lot more defensible to point to the much more significant factors that played in this race than to try to dig into election result statistics to divine whether within that statistical noise a “Faisal Gill Effect” can be identified and accurately measured. In a close race such as this one, every minor issue could have made the difference, but it’s still the major issues that really needed to be overcome in order to have had a different outcome.
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